Some homestyle Hue on a HCM City backstreet
Roaming the back streets of HCM City, Jonathan Scheff stumbles upon a restaurant good enough to be called the best home cooking
Not many foreigners, I’ve noticed, explore the dark alleys of HCM City. In New York City, you’d reply, “Of course not, because I want to live.” But in Viet Nam, the alleys nearly explode with activity and I’ve had some of the best meals by wandering down them.
At the end of Hem 136 on Le Thanh Ton Street behind Ben Thanh Market, in a small courtyard, Nam Giao contrasts so much against the rest of the shops and stalls that it nearly shines.
With comforting blue walls, warm lighting, and two shrines to Buddha, it is unassuming and homey. Masks, Vietnamese paintings and instruments hang on the walls, and a dusty cabinet of porcelain figurines sits in the corner.
The menu offers 10 traditional Hue options, with English translations and photos of the dishes. My friend, Dubonnet Del Rio, who doubled as a translater on our visit, is a Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) from New Orleans. Having grown up with food cooked by her Vietnamese mother and Creole father, she had a hankering for banh beo, so we started with that.
Banh beo is one of the many incarnations of rice that the Vietnamese make. Honestly, I’ve never had banh beo that doesn’t make me shrug and say, “Okay, so that happened”. So I will say that the banh beo at Nam Giao lived up to my expectations. Dubonnet summed it up well: “I love that this stuff is garnished with pork crackers. Anywhere else, this would be a problem.”
We ordered two Hue specialties, bun bo Hue (Hue-style beef noodle soup) and com hen (clam rice, which you can order with noodles). Eating Vietnamese food is a do-it-yourself affair: on tables everywhere in HCM City you can find limes, chilies, fish sauce, fish paste, garlic, or other amenities to tweak the taste. With soups like the one I ordered, a plate of vegetables is offered and you can add them yourself.
The beef soup surprised me because it had a twang of its own, even before I added lime and chili paste. Owner Nguyen Thi Le Thanh said that a smidge of ruoc (a subtle shrimp paste) and lemongrass provided its signature flavor. I already loved Vietnamese food, but this extra touch raised the bar a few centimeters.
Of her clam rice, Dubonnet described it as “subtle and fishy… a cross between a salad and a porridge,” consisting of clams, roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, star fruit, room temperature rice, herbs, and an extremely subtle Hue-style fish paste.
She recommends the dish with hot pepper and lime. Even though she grew up with Vietnamese food, she had never had this kind of dish. She nearly inhaled it.
After our meal, Dubonnet and I sat down with Le Thanh over tra Da (iced tea). I can’t place Le Thanh’s age, but she seemed younger than I expected, with an open, comforting face that made me like her immediately.
Her favourite dish is the clam rice that Dubonnet had ordered. She asked one of the bustling waitresses to serve the small variety of clams that she uses, one plate of unshelled clams and another of shelled and sauteed clams.
Whenever a waiter passed, they were requested to bring out other small plates with one ingredient each. Eventually we had a spread of dishes before us, like Frankenstein before he was assembled.
Com hen is special, Le Thanh explained, because it has all the flavors: spicy, sour, sweet, sleepy, grumpy, etc. The people of Hue, although many of them are poor, all keep gardens, and many use vegetables and herbs in their com hen.
I felt so relaxed and happy, with great company and a good meal in my belly, that I sort of wanted Le Thanh to adopt me just so I could stay. I thought I would volunteer to cook rice – that’s how welcoming Nam Giao is.
Two days later, we visited her second restaurant in District 10, a spacious, open five-storey place that was a dramatic contrast to the full and cozy first one. It has a modern aesthetic, with low-level bamboo tables and stools and proper tables and chairs. Paintings depict elegant, demure Vietnamese women in ao dai. Due to its size and relaxed atmosphere, it’s perfect for business meetings or large gatherings.
Le Thanh’s goal is to introduce Hue food to those who haven’t had it. She prepares the dishes with traditional methods but makes quality changes. She simmers her stock longer and excludes excess sugar in her peanut sauce. We wholeheartedly approved her adaptations since, as Dubonnet said, “Traditional doesn’t always mean better.”
Her second restaurant offers foods that the first does not, like banh khoai or rice pancake. I had never seen banh khoai in HCM City before, a porous, crispy, fried batter with shrimp, mushrooms, onions, pork meatballs and herbs. Combined with vegetables and soybean jam, every bite delivered a different melee of flavours.
Le Thanh told us that Nam Giao has appeared in several papers and guidebooks and even on television. Her restaurants certainly deserve all the praise they’ve received and I’m more than happy to add a little bit more. – VNS
- Southern Food Festival opens in HCM City
- HCM City plans big for Tet
- Hanoi defeat HCM City II at National Women’s Football Championship
- Vietnam`s first Puppetry Festival opens in HCM City
- Korean tourism festival coming soon to HCM City
- Hue aims to develop smart tourism
- Social News 29/4
- Vietnam Journey
- Tourism administration boosts central destinations
- Big tourism plan needs further study
- Kid activities at Hanoi’s book street
- 1 killed, 4 injured in Hau Giang scaffolding collapse
Some homestyle Hue on a HCM City backstreet have 972 words, post on at January 22, 2005. This is cached page on VietNam Breaking News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.